May/ June 2013 Reformish Conservatives

Meet the handful of conservative writers who are suggesting, respectfully, that the GOP change its policies.

By Ryan Cooper

Notable fact: After being fired from the NCPA, times were so hard for Bartlett that he didn’t make enough money to pay federal income tax for several years.

Quote: “Unless the Republican Party can move beyond its base, it faces political euthanasia down the road.”

Reformist score: 9

Influence inside GOP: 2


Bio: Probably the most prominent reformist, Brooks is the more senior New York Times house conservative and currently teaches a class at Yale about the lost virtue of humility. Previously, he wrote for the Wall Street Journal op-ed page.

Age: 51

Issues: Brooks is fond of intellectual sophistication for its own sake, and was one of the primary exponents of what he called “national greatness conservatism,” involving national service, manned missions to Mars, and other “great projects designed to physically and spiritually unify the nation,” which has since fallen out of favor with the rise of the Tea Party. Though his substantive positions are often difficult to tease out, he doesn’t share the fixation on slashing government of, say, Paul Ryan. He often joins Ross Douthat in anxiety over the changing social norms, though not so strongly.

Brooks uses his column to promote the work of reformers like Ponnuru and Levin, and, like them, tries to keep at least one foot firmly planted in the GOP camp even as he explores the borders of respectable dissent. After lambasting the right for whatever nonsense is consuming them at the moment, sometimes in quite cutting terms, he can be relied upon to use his next column to blame it all on President Obama.

Notable position: Brooks endorsed same-sex marriage in 2003.

Quote: “It is especially painful when narcissists suffer memory loss because they are losing parts of the person they love most.”

Reformist score: 5

Influence inside GOP: 5


Bio: Carney is a senior columnist and blogger for the Washington Examiner.

Age: 34

Issues: A self-described “conservative populist,” Carney fumes at preferential government treatment of any kind. This leads him not only to lambaste the green energy subsidies in the Obama stimulus, but also to propose busting up the largest banks, taking the wood ax to corporate welfare, and slashing farm subsidies. He also leans anti-intervention in foreign policy, though not to the same degree as Daniel Larison.

He is strongly anti-nanny state; he savaged Michael Bloomberg’s soda ban as well as rules proposed by the local D.C. government to ban food trucks from most of downtown.

Notable position: Carney has a suspicion of the money politics of the political system one rarely sees on the right. “Both parties are beholden to their donors,” he says.

Quote: “I’ve been writing on the same themes for seven years, and since the 2012 election Republicans have been more receptive than ever before.”

Reformist score: 6

Influence inside GOP: 3


Bio: One of two New York Times house conservatives, Douthat was previously a blogger and senior editor for the Atlantic. A Catholic convert and Harvard graduate, he lives in Washington, D.C.

Age: 33

Issues: A genteel, paternalistic social conservative, Douthat alternates between lengthy theological noodling, handwringing over the evolution of societal norms, and increasingly aggressive criticism of the Republican Party, especially its economic agenda. He has moderated his social conservatism, correctly perceiving that the gay-bashers of the 2004 election are going to be remembered as Bull Connors in the very near future. But he remains anti-abortion, anti-porn, and skeptical of gay marriage, if resigned to its inevitability.

His reformist bona fides were cemented with the 2008 publication of Grand New Party, coauthored with Reihan Salam. Douthat argues that the party is largely captive to its wealthy donor class, and that its recent socially liberal turn (toward immigration reform and softening opposition to same-sex marriage) is as likely as not to backfire by alienating social conservatives without winning anyone else over.

Quote: “A party elite can rebel against its own base successfully, but only if there’s a bigger base waiting to be built.”

Reformist score: 5

Influence inside GOP: 5


Bio: Another former speechwriter for George W. Bush, Frum is now a columnist and blogger for the Daily Beast.

Age: 52

Issues: Frum has always been somewhat critical of the conservative movement; his 1994 book Dead Right attacked much of extant Republicanism while trying to defend a pure conservatism. In a 2010 article, he chastised Republicans for refusing to negotiate with Democrats over Obamacare, forcing the Dems to pass it on a party line and thereby foregoing any chance at influencing the final policy. He was subsequently fired from his position at the American Enterprise Institute. This turned him into a full-fledged reformist; he embraced gay marriage, pushes for some gun control, and worries about income inequality.

He still identifies himself as a conservative Republican and remains a hardline hawk on foreign affairs, especially with respect to Israel. But with his dramatic shift to the left on domestic policy and his relentless criticism of the GOP, his main audience now is among liberals, and few conservatives pay him heed.

Notable quality: Frum is a distant cousin of Paul Krugman.

Quote: “Republicans originally thought that Fox worked for us, and now we are discovering we work for Fox.”

Reformist score: 7

Influence inside GOP: 2


Bios: A former chief speechwriter for George W. Bush, Gerson has since become a Washington Post columnist. Wehner, who also wrote speeches for Bush, is a former Weekly Standard columnist who now writes for Commentary and the Post.

Ages: 48/52

Issues: Though in the past these two sometimes criticized the right, neither one really qualified as a reformist until after the 2012 election, cemented by the March publication of a cowritten Commentary article entitled “How to Save the Republican Party.” In the piece they proposed economic policies more focused on middle- and working-class families. They also advocated ending corporate welfare and breaking up the biggest banks, immigration reform, pivoting away from Randian hyper-individualism, softening their message on gay marriage, and accepting the conclusions of science. This report was widely read enough to be quoted in the official RNC “autopsy,” the analysis of why the party lost the 2012 election.

Quote: “First, and most important, is focusing on the economic concerns of working- and middle-class Americans, many of whom now regard the Republican Party as beholden to ‘millionaires and billionaires’ and as wholly out of touch with ordinary Americans.”

Reformist score: 5

Influence inside GOP: 6


Bio: Based in Texas and sporting a PhD in Byzantine history, Larison writes primarily about foreign affairs for the American Conservative, a magazine founded by Pat Buchanan.

Age: 34

Issues: An acerbic critic of American interventionism in both parties, Larison has few fans among the GOP’s neoconservative wing. However, his brand of paleoconservatism is on the upswing among the more libertarian-minded Republicans, most recently on display during Rand Paul’s famous filibuster.

Ryan Cooper is a National Correspondent at The Week, and a former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @ryanlcooper


  • reflectionephemeral on May 06, 2013 9:15 AM:

    Josh Barro has gotten more strident of late too. "Republican engagement with health policy is 100 percent cynical. And if conservatives who write about health policy for a living arenít cynics, they should be far more exasperated about that fact than they appear to be."

    Maybe that counts as restrained because he didn't write the more general, still accurate, "Republican engagement on all domestic and foreign policy is 100 percent cynical."

    Douthat & Salam's reformist bona fides may well have been cemented with "Grand New Party"; they were thrown away by 2009, as they failed to engage with GOP behavior in the real world. They'd written a few years before, in their "Party of Sam's Club" article in Weekly Standard, that "Mitt Romney has proposed in Massachusetts that health insurance be made universal by making it mandatory. Allowing individuals to forgo coverage encourages the young and healthy to live dangerously, giving them a free ride on the public purse when things go awry, and making health care more expensive for everyone else. If you expect government to step in when the going gets tough, you have an obligation to make a contribution." As that policy was decried as socialist fascism by their co-partisans, they lacked the courage of someone like David Frum (who noted that flipping out and shrieking about "death panels" was rather a poor substitute for talking about real-world policy issues). Douthat and Salam held their tongues, wrote gingerly about the issue, and shifted focus from pressing policy challenges. (Douthat wrote a book about how America was more Christian in the 1950s).

    The reason the GOP can't reform is because it no longer involves any policy views; it's an attitude, a projection of resentment onto out groups, and onto government if it is perceived to be assisting out groups. Any conservative policy can instantly and effectively be bashed as unconstitutional tyranny (see, e.g. RomneyCare). Every Republican politician fears losing a primary to some Christine O'Donnell or Richard Mourdock (whose successful, unpatriotic ads attacked Sen. Lugar for cooperating with Democrats to curtail the spread of loose nuclear weapons). So Republican politicians don't bother to propose policies. The closest they get is Paul Ryan-style, back-of-the-envelope fantasies. If you criticize those attitudes or proto-policies, well, that's just proof you're not really One of Us after all.

  • toowearyforoutrage on May 10, 2013 12:14 PM:

    "By 1992, a former DLC chairman, Bill Clinton, won the office."

    with 43% of the vote.
    And 48% in 1996 despite a ROBUST economy.

    The DLC was effing disastrous and it took 14 years to undo the damage of the "New Democrats".

    Howard Dean reminded Democrats of the days before Reagan when we actually WON sometimes. Result? 60 vote majority and universal healthcare.

    The Democratic reform of the reform in 2006 yielded a president that won majorities of the American public BOTH times.

    That said, Democrats DO engage in navel-gazing and sometimes it's productive. Republicans find self-doubt, and introspection anathema. Pundits urging them to repudiate ANY of their platform have an uphill battle.

  • jw on May 10, 2013 6:21 PM:

    I'm curious why there aren't more women on this list.

  • Kal Lis on May 13, 2013 9:26 PM:

    I'm surprised Conor Friedersdorf didn't make your list.

  • JK74 on May 22, 2013 8:25 PM:

    tooweary: So if Bill Clinton only won 43% of the vote, why wasn't GHW Bush re-elected? And if he got less than 50% of the vote in 1996 (actually 49.2%, according to Wikipedia), why wasn't Bob Dole president? Look up "Ross Perot", if you've forgotten. While you could make a case that Perot cost Bush the '92 election (just as Nader cost Gore election in 2000), it's much harder to argue that for '96. And even so, Clinton won more votes than any other individual candidate in both years - which can't be said of GWB in 2000.

  • harvey on May 25, 2013 12:03 PM:

    It's always amusing to read what the hard Left thinks conservatives should be doing. ;-)

  • harvey on May 25, 2013 12:10 PM:

    Seriously though, you all should consider defining "conservative" as we conservatives do, and not as you do, and not as the various faux conservatives do. That will improve your analysis some, and you won't be publishing lists completely unusable as anything other than confirmation of the Left's epistemic closure.

    That would imply that multiple names should be removed from your list, including Frum, Douthat, Brooks, etc. Yes, they are not with you lefties all the time, but they are almost never with we conservatives, if ever.

  • dougmuder on May 28, 2013 8:31 AM:

    @harvey: If the authors didn't expand the definition of "conservative", there wouldn't be any reformers to write about.